Becoming an Accounts Payable Clerk
June 28, 2016 1:13 AM   Subscribe

Tomorrow, I'm interviewing for an accounts payable clerk position with a large nonprofit media organization. I really want to get this job! Please help me prep for the interview.

[Job Interview Filter]:

I would love to work at this org, so when I saw that they had an ad up (online) for an open accounts payable clerk position, I sent them my resume and cover letter. Within a week, they emailed to request that I come in for an on-site interview! I'm incredibly excited -- but also very nervous. (They didn't even do a phone screen?!).

The interview is tomorrow, and I'm finishing up my prep. But I need help figuring out how I should concentrate my efforts now that the big day is nearly here.

My background:

I have some bookkeeping experience, but have never officially worked in accounting or finance in any capacity. Also, I have a strong educational background (as in, I have a degree and I went to good schools), but that background/degree is not in anything that has to do with accounting or finance. The closest I've come to formally learning accounting/finance is an Accounting 101 class I took for fun, and a few data analysis and econ classes I had to take in grad school. Right now, I'm a manager in a restaurant, which does entail some bookkeeping and does require good organizational and communication skills -- but as far as I know, my current job's duties are nothing like an accounts payable clerk's?!

I also do have some previous school/interning/volunteer experience with media organizations, which is part of the reason that I am excited about this particular opportunity. Likewise, I'm familiar with nonprofit and public sector work through school and volunteering, and maybe/sorta through work -- but I've never worked for a large nonprofit like this organization.

Overall, I'm hoping to segue into a career in finance and/or accounting, and if I were to get this job, my dream would be to stay in this specific organization for a long, long time and to eventually work my way up within it.

(I'm also looking into continuing ed in accounting and/or finance, but everyone's advice has been to get a job in the field first, so that's what I'm doing).

My questions:

What questions are they likely to ask in the interview?

What would be good questions for me to ask them?

What's the usual scope of an AP clerk's duties?

What skills are especially important for an AP clerk to have?

What skills are useless or undesirable in an AP clerk?

Is there anything else/in particular that I should do to prepare? (i.e., is there something in particular that I should study up on?).

Are there any red flags I should look for in terms of this being a bad position or a bad organization to work in?
posted by static sock to Work & Money (7 answers total)
Worked accounts payable many moons ago for a bank in Scotland.

Usually you are chasing for payment internally, following up with invoices to get them signed off and get money to suppliers. So there's a lot of administration and attention to detail required, but you also need to be able to basically nag people without coming off as a nag. The position I adopted was always 'I have this problem (the invoice) that you can help me solve. And it's super easy, just sign this/click this/respond to this email'.

It can be boring and gruelling and put you in the position of the bad guy, but if you come with a) enthusiasm, b) persistence that isn't irritating and c) attention to detail, you'll be a great candidate.
posted by Happy Dave at 4:50 AM on June 28, 2016

They will almost certainly have an accounting system, like Lawson, automating their A/P. Since you have no experience here, be prepared to come as close as you can, like describing your ability to use other software systems or giving an example of mastering training quickly.

Know something about the organization's mission, and be able to explain why you want to be a part of it. (Don't go overboard.)

You didn't take Accounting 101 "for fun," you took it for enrichment in an area that interests you. :-)

Ambition to rise is fine, but remember that they are hiring for this specific position; don't send a signal that you'll be chomping at the bit to get out of it once hired.

Skills: accuracy, attention to detail, organization, team oriented (e.g. you're not a cog in a machine, you're doing your part along with everyone else to make the organization's financial engine run smoothly.)

Good luck!
posted by Short Attention Sp at 5:49 AM on June 28, 2016

As a former A/P supervisor, and currently a senior accountant, what I would look for in a new A/P clerk is a demonstrated interest and ability to learn. The process will be unfamiliar to you, the systems will have aspects that you have not seen before, the vendors may have certain quirks, and the internal requirements are sure to be custom to that organization.

When given the opportunity, show what you have learned in the past. State that you would be eager to get to know how their system works and, with experience, be an accurate and efficient worker. Ask how long they think it would take for a new clerk to become fully knowledgeable. Ask what the toughest part of the job is (like monthly close, perhaps). Where do you see yourself in five years? As an expert in the A/P process, and possibly a supervisor, you might say.

Good luck.
posted by Midnight Skulker at 7:48 AM on June 28, 2016

Good luck, indeed!

Great advice so far. I supervise a team that includes A/P clerk-type positions within a large nonprofit. A couple things I haven't seen mentioned:

1. Sometimes administrative positions can pit 'procedure' people like yourself against 'content' people. Say, someone's job is to get a bunch of creative programming done, and your job is to make sure they use the approved vendors and go through the lengthy-but-required bid process first. It's easy to start to feel like you're working at cross purposes. So, I'm looking for an A/P clerk who respects the rules, but also sees that the rules are ultimately there to further the mission, and who is always looking for ways to make it as easy as possible for everyone else in the organization to understand and comply with those rules.

2. As an interviewer I'm looking for motivation: what in your history suggests that you will actually enjoy this work, thrive in this environment, and want to be doing this work for a reasonable period of time? Nothing worse than hiring someone who has the skills but turns out to be miserable day-to-day.

3. Scope of duties: Our A/P clerks are getting copies of invoices, working with units to make sure that the goods were actually received as expected, checking that the invoice matches the terms of the purchase order, checking that the vendor is in the system and not on some sort of IRS watch list, determining how the unit wants to pay (ie. from which account), making sure the system generates and mails a check, and communicating with the unit and the vendor throughout to make sure everyone knows the status of a given payment.
posted by Ausamor at 9:14 AM on June 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

I've been working in AP for about 17 years, but for a company large and sprawling enough that it may not be comparable to the nonprofit you're you're interested in.

At its core, "Accounts Payable" is just paying invoices, resolving disputes, and maintaining related records, but your specific duties could cover everything in that range or just be a tiny subset.

You could be keying invoices, monitoring EDI (Electronic Data Interchange) transmissions from external vendors, validating invoices submitted from within the organization, adding accounting/coding to invoices, matching invoices to purchase orders/receiving, processing internal expense reports, or reviewing other inbound documents. You could be running payment processes, cutting checks, handling missing payments, working with credit card payments/vendors for payment, or producing other outbound documents.

You could spend your entire day handling questions from within the organization or be an external-facing customer service representative resolving vendor payment disputes. You could spend your day staring a paper documents or never touch a single one. You could be end up in a record-keeping role (account reconciliations, data reporting/summarization).

Along the lines of what others said, interviewers are looking for a mixture of skills, aptitudes, and personality (and that mixture is highly idiosyncratic). It's been a few years since I was involved in hiring decisions, but with entry-level jobs in particular, we used to hire as much for attitude and potential as for experience and existing skills (as long as the minimum was there). A person with 10 years of experience who can't adapt to work with a new team, process, or software application is an impediment, not an asset. We wanted to find a good, stable fit for the open position, but tried to find people who - with experience and time - would be good candidates for promotion. That said (and as mentioned above), it was sometimes obvious when applicants were merely deigning to apply for an entry-level position, or had their eye on the exit before they got in the front door.

Ask questions about what the role actually entails, day-to-day. Will you be learning a diverse range of programs and skills, or just one? Will you be communicating primarily in person, over the phone, over email, or via productivity/incident-tracking software? Will you have certain productivity numbers to meet (invoices processed, disputes resolved, error/audit rates, phone calls taken)? Where do most people in this position end up after one, three, five years?

Finally, keep your eyes open for warning signs and be willing to turn down the job. Your enthusiasm for the organization and desire to move into finance/accounting will make you a more appealing hire, but you may not want the job once you've got it if it's nothing but keying invoices or researching disputes via poorly imaged documents all day.

Good luck - I hope you get the job and opportunity you're seeking.
posted by verschollen at 10:49 AM on June 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

Every accounting process is different but the lowest common denominator is Excel. You may be asked to demonstrate knowledge.
posted by crazycanuck at 8:06 PM on June 28, 2016

Thanks for all the advice!

I had the interview today, and it went well. There was no test (phew), just a series of meetings with members of the AP team. I did use your advice when I was coming up with questions to ask and to prep for beforehand -- it was a big help! Thank you!

In case this is useful for anyone else going in for an AP clerk interview: The AP team said that they were mostly looking for someone who would be a good fit and who would work well with them. They also said that the work itself isn't difficult to learn, so how much experience candidates have going in isn't really a big concern for them.

They asked relatively generic interview questions -- it felt more like they were trying to get a feel for my personality and history than like they were trying to quiz me on anything in particular.

The interview ran really long, because the head of the dept and I ended up losing track of time and chatting for like an hour. Which I think is a good sign! I'm nervous but hopeful.

Anyway, they're finishing up the first round interviews this week, and I should hear whether I've made it to the next round (second interview) sometime mid/late next week. My fingers are crossed.

Either way, I'll let you know how it turns out.
posted by static sock at 10:46 PM on June 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

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